Musicology discovers the mobile phone

July 30, 2015 by norman lebrecht


For want of anything better to occupy their time, musicologists are now playing with their cellphones. It’s for a freebie in Paris. Not one paragraph of the invitation below is coherent, in the normal sense of the word.

concert phones


“Music on the Move: Sounds and New Mobilities”


CRAL/EHESS – University of Cambridge

Keynote speaker: Prof. Micheal Bull (University of Sussex)

Breathing to sing, echoing screams in a cave, plucking guitar strings, applauding and clapping, surfing the web to download, dancing to music, performing foreign scores, translating an opera, chanting in protests or in religious processions. Sound is movement and music is on the move.
Since the end of the 20th century, the notion of ‘mobility’ seems to be ubiquitous in social sciences as a prominent cross-disciplinary agenda. Many scholars even refer to a new mobilities paradigm or a mobility turn (Sheller and Urry 2006; Adey et al. 2013; Faist 2013) stressing the importance of movement when studying historical or contemporary societies and individuals (Cresswell and Merriman 2011; Dureau and Hily 2009). If the entire world might seem to be on the move, it has become crucial to understand ‘how the fact of movement becomes mobility’, i.e. how ‘movement is made meaningful’ (Cresswell 2006, 21).

The mobility turn draws on theories already present in the social sciences, such as the work of Georg Simmel and his analysis of the human ‘will to connection’, the research on the hybrid nature of sociotechnical systems in science and technology studies (e.g. transport), the postmodern notion of spatiality (which conceives the essence of places, societies and states as constantly in motion), or the increasing centrality of the corporeal body as a way to explore the world.

Today, ‘mobility’ is seen as related to the idea of ‘circulation’ (of people, goods, ideas, cultures), which includes ‘movement’ and ‘nomadism’ but surpasses these notions. Firstly, it is based on the assumption that people and places are interconnected, where the latter are not fixed locations but are constituted from a variety of flows that circulate through them continuously. Secondly, ‘mobility’ implies reciprocity; as a consequence, fixed notions of identity and of ‘passive’ reception are disregarded in favour of a permeable notion of national boundaries and the complexity of cultural exchanges. Thirdly, ‘mobility’ comprises the concepts of travel and of transport, conceived as the core of social and cultural life. Fourthly, ‘mobility’ involves centralities and exclusions: this new paradigm considers the emancipatory quality of some kinds of motilities as opposed to the exclusive character of others. Finally, ‘mobility’ is materialized: a complex set of material tools is necessary in order to perform a networked society.
Issues of ‘mobility’ have been present in the field of musicology. Nevertheless, as a part of the social sciences, musicology has explicitly incorporated ‘mobility’ through the growing field of sound studies (Bull 2013; Sterne 2012), i.e. the investigation of ‘the primacy of sound as a modality of knowing and being in the world’ (Back and Bull 2004, 3). Michael Bull argues that mobile audio technology, instead of cutting us off from the world we live in, allows us to explore and construct the spaces of our everyday life (Bull 2007). This is in resonance with the concepts of ‘soundscape’ (Murray Schafer 1994) and ‘soundwalking’ (Westerkamp 2007), with the aesthetics of environmental sound (Pecqueux 2012; Biserna and Sinclair 2015), with ‘contemporary transnational practices of technologically-mediated sound production, consumption, and diffusion that are at the heart of popular music studies’ (Chapman 2013), and, finally, with recent research projects developed in France (such as Musimorphoses). Mobility studies are now broadening their perspectives into new territories belonging also to musicology, such as musical migrations, receptions, transfers as well as music history (Gopinath and Stanyek 2014a, 2014b).

This conference seeks to join this existing number of approaches and methodologies that have been taking place especially in English-speaking academia: we aim to support the presence of ‘mobility’ in continental musicology and to discuss its limits and advantages. For this purpose, we welcome proposals for 20-minute papers (in English or French) that provide new insights on music through mobility, without any geographical or historical limitations. The suggested areas of research are the following:
– CULTURAL AND SOCIAL MOBILITIES: class, identities, political movements, reception of musics and musicians, cultural transfers, consumption;
– GEOGRAPHICAL MOBILITIES: migrations and circulation of musicians and musical goods (recordings, scores, musical instruments);
– TECHNOLOGICAL MOBILITIES: portability and materiality (walkmans, iPod, mp3 players), streaming, web music, videos;
– MOVEMENT IN MUSICAL AESTHETICS AND PRACTICES: librettos and operas about mobility, movement in musical composition (repetition, rhythm, serialism, spatiality), mobility in the history of western music, music encompassing several genres and cross-genre music, movement as art form, immobility.

Abstracts of no more than 400 words should be sent both to [email protected] fr and [email protected] fr by 15 September 2015. Please include title, name, affiliation, email address, AV requirements and a short biography (150 words). The Committee will notify applicants of the outcome by 15 October 2015. Submissions from graduate students and early career researchers will be particularly welcome. If you have any further queries, please contact the organising committee by emailing [email protected] fr, [email protected] fr, [email protected] ac. uk or [email protected] ac. uk.

Violeta Nigro Giunta (PhD Candidate, CRAL/EHESS) Nicolò Palazzetti (PhD Candidate, CRAL/EHESS) Amparo Fontaine (PhD Candidate, University of Cambridge) Vera Wolkowicz (PhD Candidate, University of Cambridge)

Comments (25)

  1. Robert King says:

    I once had to review a music text book that was written in language equally baffling as is this. After reading the first paragraph perhaps twenty times, and still none the wiser as to what the writer was on about, all I could do was expand the synopsis from the back cover, glean what I could from the chapter headings, and start my review: “This book is not for the faint hearted”.

    1. Tim Benjamin says:

      Was this text book by a certain Mr T. Adorno?

  2. Brian says:

    Well, this call for papers certainly has all the buzzwords required today to get funding for a conference: “sociotechnical”, “interconnected”, “aesthetics”, “methodologies” etc.

    And I thought I couldn’t find “postmodern(ism)”, but then there it was!

    In this context, the poor keynote speaker certainly has a very unfortunate surname.

    I am sure some contributions will be very interesting, and others possibly soporific – as is usually the case with just about every conference.

    1. Patrick says:

      And don’t forget the one that always makes me wince….


  3. John Walker says:

    Makes me think it might be a good idea to introduce the rule that conference descriptions in Calls for Papers should be no longer than the word limit for abstracts. This CfP spends over 800 rambling words describing something that people are asked to submit no more than 400 words to if they want to participate!

  4. John Borstlap says:

    It is a beautiful specimen of Derridaspeak, providing research material for anthropologists, in the way explorers study tribes in the Amazone jungle. The nature of that conference seems to be, alas, symptomatic for many contemporary universities, and it appears to be – indeed – one big selfie. Better subject would have been: the future of classical / serious music in relation to cultural identity, or: the influence of postmodernism on the humanities, or: demographic shifts in current and future audiences for the performing arts. But that would be too close to home.

    I am surprised that the University of Cambridge is involved. In my time, that was a respectable instution.

    1. Alvaro Mendizabal says:


      ‘The future of classical music’/’Demographic shifts in consumption of art’ is such a regurgitated topic, there are even blogs and foundations established on these,. However, the answers to these questions still don’t satisfy the people who wish we go back to 1950 to see any classical musician have a modicum of influence in society at large. That time is gone and will never-ever comeback. Doing more research in those questions wont change the result the same way doing more research in algebra wont change that 2 + 2 = 4.

      The future of classical music is the same as the future of the Latin Language: it will be taught in a handful of places, learned by a handful of people, and preserved as a big contribution to society in human history for a certain time period. Be happy with that.

      You really want to know the future of performing arts? Read Nobel prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa’s book “the civilization of entertainment”. Done.

      To revise these questions just because some people do not like the answers its a waste of time and resources. Mobility seems to me a much more interesting topic, as it is changing the very relationship people have with music at large, with any genre.

      You are still thinking about ‘audiences’? ‘cd sales’? ‘classical music’? That thinking is so behind the forefront of the music problematic you cant even see the trends that drive the whole peloton.

      This is a most interesting topic.

      1. JB says:

        Has Vargo Llosa’s book been translated to English?

      2. John Borstlap says:

        I did not say that (repetetive) explorations of ‘classical music problems’ have not happened before, or that they have meanwhile come-up with definite answers. The problems don’t go away and indeed they form part of a wider problem of erosion, the cause of which is pointed to in your comment:

        “You are still thinking about ‘audiences’? ‘cd sales’? ‘classical music’? That thinking is so behind the forefront of the music problematic you cant even see the trends that drive the whole peloton.” Namely, here it is suggested that surface phenomenae – as created by media culture, the internet, IT, etc. – simply make disappear the reality of the existence of ‘classical music’, recordings, audiences etc. In other words: the constants of society, of culture, are something different from fashion which may blind people being quite impressed by them, like people who think that postmodernism, Derrida, Bourdieu, Faucoult et al are thinkers to be taken seriously. Where there is no strong cultural awareness to begin with, such solvents of critical thinking are given the opportunity to contribute to the cultural erosion. Hence the exaggeration of the voices that announce the definite extinction of the mind (like Alain Finkelkraut: ‘The Defeat of the Mind’).

        Cultural erosion stems from misunderstood democracy and populist capitalism, given voice by the fact of numbers, and not by some ‘invisible, incomprehensible’ force. But it is quite painful to see that a democratic society where freedom, equal rights and emancipation strive after accessibility to the assets of civilization for everyone, in the same time – because of giving voice to the masses – breaks down its highest cultural values and thus, undermines the basis of that very society. This inner contradiction can be related to the problems of art, music etc.

        THIS conference seems to be a mere BOGSAT (according to, a “Bunch Of Guys Sitting Around Talking”) and not much more.

  5. Tom Moore says:

    The grotesque quality of this is due at least in part to the fact that the organizers are all graduate students.

    One might wonder why only submissions in English and French?

    1. sixtus says:

      Because every paragraph in German would be only 3 or 4 gihugeic compound nouns with 3 or 4 verbs thudding in at the end, as Twain might have put it. Academic arts criticism in general is almost always this turgid and onanistically narcissistic.

    2. Robert King says:

      A wittier person than I might have come up with a twinkling riposte that it would have been wonderful had the call for submissions also been written in one of those two permitted languages…

      1. John Borstlap says:

        Good point! Especially English would have been helpful.

  6. LondonPianist says:

    Really, Mr. Lebrecht? While the prose may be less than elegant, I’m afraid to tell you that this call for papers is entirely coherent. Maybe it’s not your cup of tea – fine. But willful ignorance shouldn’t be either. What’s distasteful here isn’t the academic jargon of a few paragraphs but rather the dissing of musicologists simply because you refuse to understand what they do.

    1. william osborne says:

      A musicological study of what creates the strange demographic of Slippedisc readers would be interesting. Why is classical music the most conservative, is not reactionary, of the arts?

      1. CDH says:

        Best question I have seen on here in months.

      2. William Safford says:

        And how and why did it involve in that direction?

        1. John Borstlap says:

          Because in a time of cultural decline, common sense and the wish to preserve the values of a civilization, takes on the form of ‘conservatism’ in the eyes of the decliners.

          Demonstrations of cultural decline are very easy to find in the public spaces where expressions of contemporary ideas and values are exposed: cut corpses in formaldihyde, cricifixes in urine, unmade beds with filthy tissues, tinned excrements… and in another sphere: music in the form of silence, players producing every other sound than the one their instrument was made for, and copulating violins:

          Presentations of culture in public space from before this decline: the old art collections, concert halls and opera houses, celebrate a territory of meaning, still drawing lots of audiences. They are not ‘conservative’ but consist of people still clinging to common sense and their own culture. And new generations of artists are picking-up this culture in both the visual arts and music, so there is hope – but such trends are willfully denied by many established art elites because it undermines their position.

      3. John Borstlap says:

        Where people have acquired highly valuable assets, they are inclined to preserve them.

        Nobody wants to loose something that is of great value to them. Therefore, dentistry is the MOST conservative profession in the world.

  7. LondonPianist says:

    Furthermore, why have you included the names and email addresses of the graduate students organizing this conference? Dissing musicologists in general is one thing (distasteful and ignorant, yes, but not harmful on a personal level), but dissing individual doctoral scholars by name is utterly out of line.

    1. Pianofortissimo says:

      It seems that contact information was provided in case anyone have any further queries about the meeting.

      1. LondonPianist says:

        Yes, obviously – it’s a call for papers. But not a call for papers disseminated through someone mocking the conference conveners. At the very least he should’ve removed their email addresses and probably their names too. As it stands, it’s unnecessarily below the belt.

        1. Forte Piano says:

          To defend SD just a tad. A quick Google search using just the title of this conference shows the emails and names of the organisers attached to the call for papers in some two dozen websites across Europe, Facebook and LinkedIn entries and so on – the organisers have put out a pretty comprehensive call, so their contact details are widely spread. However, I rather doubt that the names of the committee will be remembered by SD readers even tomorrow morning, let alone their email addresses (which I hadn’t noticed until you pointed out they were there – I dozed off well before I made it to the bottom of the page!).

          That said, these are all PhD students, onto their second or third degree at top universities, so meant to be the crème de la crème of music academia. And in the harsh old world of music, be it as performers or as academics, there is criticism of what we do, as that’s one of the ways in which we improve. Were I one of these organisers, if I had seen this thread, I’d probably be saying: “Fair point: next time I could write a call like this a little better”. And the other side of me would be smiling and saying: “Well, my conference certainly got a load more PR!”.

          1. LondonPianist says:

            Criticism courtesy of avowedly anti-musicology, anti-academia forums such as this (at least this particular post, if not the entire SD blog itself) will, alas, have no positive impact on anyone in either of those fields, researchers who pursue knowledge and learning for the sake of understanding something about the world and have little interest in pandering to anti-intellectual whining. Should calls for papers be written more clearly? Yes, probably. But how is accusing students and scholars of music of having “[nothing] better to occupy their time” supposed to inspire clarity? All I see are fragile bridges burning. And we wonder why there’s such a disconnect – and indeed, disrespect – between audiences, players, and scholars.

  8. Robert King says:

    I can’t speak for LondonPianist’s rather depressing circumstances of burning bridges, anti-musicology and anti-academia, but in the world that I and many of my professional musician colleagues inhabit, things are distinctly more positive and symbiotic.

    Indeed, I can’t think of a single musician I know who doesn’t happily work alongside fine musicologists and academics (and many straddle whatever divide there may be – TKC proudly fields quite an array of PhDs amongst its ranks). My own email box is full of correspondence from (and copious thanks to) great musical researchers and historians. As for any possible audience disdain for these important people, I sense the opposite: audiences are full of wonder at discoveries in music, and only need to open almost any CD booklet or concert programme any day to appreciate the work of academics from across the musical spectrum.

    NL remains joyously waspish about almost everyone and everything in music – none of us has immunity. It causes no more than a small and temporary skin-rash when he prods at something, and if a slight target last week was one specific area in musicology, be sure that this week it will be something different that catches his eye. I’ve a sneeking feeling that more than a few of SD’s readers are themselves academics and musicologists…

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